As passengers exited Air North flight 506 on Friday, many wondered aloud what the fuss was about.
Why were television cameras waiting to greet them in the lobby of Whitehorse International Airport?
What were the photographers doing here?
And who were all these people wearing orange badges?
No one had told them Todd Hardy, the leader of the Yukon New Democratic Party, had accompanied them from Vancouver.
More than 30 party faithful stood by, some on tiptoe, heads weaving from side to side to catch a glimpse of Hardy among the debarking passengers.
Bewildered and amused, travellers picked their way through the media and political circus to meet their own loved ones and collect their belongings.
Returning from vacation, former NDP premier Piers McDonald walked the gauntlet with a smile on his face.
Though familiar with every New Democrat gathered at the gate, McDonald didn’t stick around.
This was Hardy’s hour.
Someone in a wheelchair appeared, prompting a subtle intake of breath.
By Hardy’s own report, the chemotherapy he had been receiving since August 10th — the day after he was diagnosed with leukemia — had shattered his health. It was entirely possible he might not be strong enough to walk off the plane.
But it wasn’t him.
Finally Hardy walked through the gate, the last passenger off the plane.
Someone started to clap, setting off a chain reaction of sustained applause and cheers.
It was a catharsis for all the tense emotion that had been building since September 8th, when Premier Dennis Fentie called for a territorial election while his longest standing rival was, quite literally, fighting for his life.
Amid all the clapping, it was immediately clear that Hardy had changed.
He walked slowly forward, a lean figure in a white button down wearing a woolen scarf and cap.
A hard smile lined his thickened face as he met his three adult children in a collective embrace, holding them tight to his frame.
He took his granddaughter into his arms and she hugged him about the neck, not confused for a moment about who he was, despite his altered appearance.
Candidates and organizers wept as they lined up to shake his hand and hug him.
“I’ve been wanting to be home for a long time, and they finally let me out,” Hardy said after several tearful greetings.
“I’m feeling stronger, better. I walked.
“Everybody thought I would be in a wheelchair, but the fresh air of the Yukon rejuvenates you.
“I just feel good to be home. I feel really, really good to be home.”
Hardy’s eyes stayed dry.
Without his trademark moustache he looked something like his old self, from the campaign literature of past elections.
But Hardy left no doubt that he came home with the intention of winning the October 10 contest.
“Our biggest challenge is winning the election, isn’t it? And we’re going to do it,” he said.
“I’m going to spend some time with my family and then I’ll be down at the campaign office.
“I’ve got a lot of talking to do to a lot of people.”
Representatives from the other two parties did not attend Hardy’s arrival.
Hardy has been available by telephone for interviews and news conferences since he was medevaced to Vancouver on August 10.
On August 25, Fentie visited Hardy in hospital to assess his condition.
The writ came down two weeks later, catching Hardy and the NDP off guard.
The NDP rallied and plugged holes in their roster of 18 candidates with two party stalwarts, Rachael Lewis and Lil Grubach-Hambrook.
Hardy announced the economic and environmental planks and took the lead at the release of the NDP’s complete platform, which was heavy on health care.
But other NDP candidates picked up the inevitable slack left by Hardy’s absence, most notably Lewis, who stood in for him at a leadership forum hosted by the Yukon Chamber of Commerce last week.
Interim leader Steve Cardiff sat in the audience as Lewis offered the NDP’s economic vision in contrast to Yukon Party leader Dennis Fentie’s and Yukon Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell’s.
Lewis stumbled while discussing privatization, saying the NDP would be open to private liquor stores and highway maintenance, pending more definitive information.
On Friday, Cardiff was forced to clarify the NDP’s position.
“We’re not going to privatize highways and we’re not going to privatize the liquor store,” he said.
“We think it’s advantageous to give our candidates both the experience and the opportunity to participate in those things, and it shows a team approach.”
But Hardy will speak for the NDP in a leadership debate scheduled for Wednesday at the High Country Inn that will be hosted by the CBC, said Cardiff.
“To have him here is going to be such a boom to our team,” he said, with the tears of Hardy’s homecoming still fresh in his eyes.
“Todd and I go back a long way. We’ve done a lot of things together, we’ve fought a lot of good fights, both election fights and in the workplace.
“He’s a good buddy of mine and a good colleague.
“It’s just great to see him again.
“Just being here and being more accessible is going to rally our troops and help us get our message out to Yukoners that Todd Hardy and the NDP are the party and the team that you can count on to keep their commitments.”
The NDP planned to give Hardy the weekend with his family, to gather his strength before meeting with his team as the final week of the election campaign begins.
But Hardy’s first stop on his home turf was the Whitehorse General Hospital.
His chemotherapy will continue here, he said.
“I have to go to the hospital right now so they can take some blood.
“Every day they have to take a little bit of blood from me.”
With his family and friends around him and his head held high, Hardy walked toward the doors of the airport as the NDP chanted “Todd! Todd! Todd!”